Russians arrive in North Korea as first foreign tour group since COVID-19

The visitors’ arrival comes as Moscow and Pyongyang bolster ties, pledging closer economic and military cooperation.

A group of Russian tourists
A group of Russian tourists arrive at Pyongyang International Airport on February 9, 2024 [Kim Won Jin/AFP]

A group of Russian tourists have arrived in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, becoming the first foreign group to visit the country since the COVID-19 pandemic.

An Air Koryo flight carried the 100 visitors to Pyongyang International Airport on Friday, the Russian embassy said on Facebook.

Their arrival comes as Moscow and Pyongyang bolster ties, with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un making a rare overseas trip to meet President Vladimir Putin in the Russian Far East last September.

The tour group included people in the tourism business and “travellers from literally all parts of Russia from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok”, the embassy said. They will spend four days taking in the sights and visiting a major ski resort.

“We will look forward to new encounters with tourists from Russia!” the embassy added.

Russia’s TASS news agency earlier reported that 97 Russians, including teen ski athletes, had departed from Russia’s far eastern city of Vladivostok.

A group of Russian tourists
Russian tourists pose for photos after their arrival at Pyongyang International Airport [Kim Won Jin /AFP]

The Russians are believed to be the first foreign tourists to enter North Korea since the country reopened its border last August, after nearly four years of pandemic-linked border closures, when even its own nationals were prevented from entering.

But the trip surprised Asia observers, who had expected the first post-pandemic tourists to North Korea to come from China, North Korea’s biggest diplomatic ally and economic pipeline.

It has also become more challenging for Russians to visit Europe since the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and the West imposed sanctions on Moscow.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who also visited Pyongyang last year, said that the country could be recommended as a tourist destination, the TASS news agency reported.

Tourism industry

North Korea’s official DPR Korea Tour website has recently uploaded promotional videos showcasing various attractions in the country, such as the scenic Taedong River and the snow-covered Mount Paektu.

Analysts have said that Kim had shown interest in developing North Korea’s tourism industry in his early years in power, signalling that this may be a priority for the leader post-pandemic.

Before the pandemic, tourism to North Korea was limited, with tour companies saying that about 5,000 Western tourists visited the country each year.

US citizens made up about 20 percent of the market before Washington banned travel following the imprisonment and subsequent death of American student Otto Warmbier.

Pyongyang and Seoul once also cooperated on the Mount Kumgang complex which thousands of South Korean tourists visited. But that came to an abrupt end in 2008 after a North Korean soldier shot dead a tourist from the South who strayed off an approved path, and Seoul suspended travel.

Friday’s tour groups’ arrival comes as Moscow and Pyongyang bolster ties. Putin and Kim have pledged closer economic and military cooperation amid claims by the US that Pyongyang was helping Russia with its war efforts in Ukraine by sending weapons.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies